She may not be the most talked-about player out there but Wang Qiang is having one of the most impressive stretches of tennis these past few months.
The 26-year-old became the first-ever Chinese player to reach the quarter-finals of the Wuhan Open when she defeated Australia’s Daria Gavrilova 7-5, 6-2 on Wednesday.
It’s the latest in a series of firsts for Wang.
In May, she claimed the first top-10 victory of her career at Roland Garros by beating Venus Williams en route to a maiden third round appearance at a Grand Slam. She then lifted her first WTA title in Nanchang in July before making history at the Asian Games in Indonesia, becoming the first player to win multiple gold medals in tennis singles in the history of the competition.
A gold medal at the Asian Games means a huge deal for Chinese athletes and Wang admits that triumph freed her up even more moving forward.
“Being in the Asian Games, I felt more pressure because I’m competing for the country. I have to do my best for each point. I’m not representing myself only, I’m representing the government, my country. But here I feel more at ease. I can be more like myself,” she told reporters in Wuhan on Wednesday.
She followed that up by reaching the third round at the US Open, the semis in Hiroshima earlier this month, then picked up her second career WTA title in Guangzhou last week.
These past couple of days in Wuhan, she claimed another top-10 win, this time over world No. 7 Karolina Pliskova, and extended her winning streak to eight consecutive matches on home soil.
While others can shy away from home pressure, Wang thrives on it.
“The bigger the court, the better she plays,” her coach Peter McNamara told Sport360.
“Throw her in the deep end, she likes to be centre stage, she likes the chance to prove herself, and I love that. For me, that’s the ultimate professional, when you want to be out there on centre stage and show your stuff, not be able to fall apart. And she very rarely falls apart at a major tournament or major court.”
Wang, who takes on Puerto Rican Monica Puig in Thursday’s quarter-finals, has looked incredibly comfortable here in Wuhan both on the court and off it. Addressing a jam-packed press conference room after her win over Gavrilova, the Tianjin-native told local press how much she loved competing in front of the home crowd.
“I’m really happy to be competing in China, getting a lot of support from fans. Also I love Chinese food, this is really important to me,” she said.
“When I was very little, I trained in Wuhan. I always felt that coming to Wuhan is like coming back home because I have grown up here. Every year I competed in Wuhan in the ITF circuit or WTA events. I’m really happy in Wuhan, in a Premier 5 event, that I can do so well. I will try to do better to provide a better performance for the audience.”
Wuhan is the hometown of the legendary Li Na, Asia’s first singles Grand Slam champion. Her presence is felt everywhere at the tournament, which came to life on the heels of her second Grand Slam title and just after she announced her retirement from tennis.
She inspired an entire nation to get into tennis and the new wave of Chinese players has already shown early signs of arrival when 17-year-old Wang Xiyu won the US Open junior title this month, then held four match points against world No. 13 Daria Kasatkina in the Wuhan second round on Tuesday.
Wang Qiang believes the future is bright for Chinese tennis.
“She is a goal. She’s a role model for many athletes, especially Chinese players. If I can play as well as she did, I will have a very perfect life,” Wang said of Li Na.
“After the emergence of Li Na, I think we are on the rise. You see young players. At this level of tournament, we see great performances. We have many opportunities to win matches. I think in the near future, in international tournaments, we’ll see more Chinese players.”
McNamara, who has been working with Wang for the past three and a half years, echoes his student’s views on the massive influence of Li Na.
“Everyone aspires to be Li Na, great ambassador to Chinese culture, Chinese values, Chinese everything. And just a great sportswoman,” said the Australian coach, who is a three-time doubles Grand Slam champion himself.
“And as a Chinese player, we can all look up to her and take that strength for what she did. Because what she did was really special, against a lot of odds and I think if you think about the chances they have today, the odds aren’t as difficult as they were back then. I look forward to Q [Wang] stepping up.”
McNamara, 63, has a strong connection with Wang, and says he sees himself as her grandfather. He is baffled by the coaching carousel that is always spinning on the WTA tour and can’t see himself jumping ship to coach another player.
“In a way she’s helped me more than I’ve helped her,” he says.
“Just for me to be a better person. Chinese culture brings out the best in some people, and it’s certainly brought the best out of me with her.
“Her English in the beginning was scarce to say the least, and my Chinese was not good. That’s where I mean, that’s why she’s helped me as a person so much. She’s taught me to communicate in not only a verbal way but in an emotional way. Sometimes words are bluff, but emotion and what comes from the heart is pretty important and we have an unbelievable relationship.
“I’m like a grandfather to her. She can’t get rid of me, and the thing is I wouldn’t go to anyone else. Because you’ve got to like the person. I couldn’t go to somebody else, that’s just not on. For me, it’s her.
“My wife says she comes second, and I said ‘no, darling, my wife is first and Wang Qiang is second’. And that’s the way it is.
“As you can see, we have a great relationship. It works. A lot of coaches go from one to the other, I find it very difficult how you can have a great relationship when you go from one to the other. Doesn’t make sense when last week you coached this one, this week you’re coaching that one, and they’re playing against each other.
“I’d have an emotional breakup, I have to be on Valium or something to get through the match. It just wouldn’t work for me.”
Wang is unsure how she managed to step up the past few months and take her career-high ranking to its current position of 34 in the world.
“I don’t know. Because the beginning of the year I played not so well, just first round, second round, like that, just tell me… I don’t know,” she told me with a laugh.
“I think everything together, but more mental and more believing in myself.”
Wang Qiang since the start of RG:
– 1st Top 10 win (d Venus 1R RG)
– 1st 3R Slam (RG)
– 1st title (Nanchang)
– 2nd 3R Slam (USO)
– Asian Games gold medal
– 2nd title (Guangzhou)
– Best career win (d Pliskova 2R Wuhan)
– 1st Chinese player to make QF at #WuhanOpen
– CH ranking
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) September 26, 2018
She also credits McNamara for teaching her “how to play tennis, like with the score, at 4-all, 30-all, how to play the point”.
McNamara says it all comes down to professionalism, something he feels Wang lacked in the past.
“I think the most important thing is that she’s changed from being a little bit unprofessional to professional. She couldn’t see it before, it was a bit of a hobby I think playing tennis. But now she realises this is a job, I’m not bad at this,” he explains.
“Last year after Wimbledon she went AWOL and didn’t play until National Games and US Open, so she played one tournament in three months. So it’s a little bit unprofessional.
“But also, it’s when you get on the practice court. She gives 100 per cent, it’s pretty easy, you don’t go out there and just muck around, because then you don’t get anything out of it.
“And in the gym, everything she’s doing is far more concentrated and far more professional. It’s a package to be professional, it starts with the morning and finishes with the evening, and in between you have to get it right. Girls like [Simona] Halep, [Caroline] Wozniacki, these girls get it right. They’re consummate professionals and that’s the difference. They’ve got it organised. And she’s starting to get in that mode.”
He added: “You just have to remind her. She needs reminding of what’s important. This is a job, you want to play tennis, this is 24/7, this is a real job. And you only get one shot at it, so you might as well give it the best chance you can, and she’s starting to realise ‘Oh I might as well give it a good bash’. And she’s giving it a good bash.”
Looking ahead, Wang already has her eyes set on higher targets, and doesn’t feel like limiting herself in any way.
“Top-20, top-10? I think the goal has to be a big one so you can [keep going higher],” she said while making beeping sounds and motioning with her hands like an elevator moving up floor by floor.
On Thursday against Puig, she’ll try to keep her ascent going.
Simona Halep has her eyes set on a strong showing at the WTA Finals in Singapore next month, despite a back injury she picked up during training in Wuhan that limited her performance in her second-round loss to Dominika Cibulkova on Tuesday.
The Kremlin Cup tournament, taking place the week before Singapore, made a surprise announcement on Tuesday that Halep was going to participate in the event in Moscow.
It seemed like an unusual decision from Halep, who will need to fly straight to Singapore after Moscow and could potentially miss the promotional activities the top-eight players take part in ahead of the WTA Finals.
The Romanian told reporters in Wuhan earlier this week that she has her eyes firmly set on finishing the year as the world No. 1, a position she has held onto since February, with no interruption, but could potentially lose before the season closes.
“The motivation is still there. I really want to finish on No. 1 again. I have a chance, but I have to take it,” Halep told reporters here on Monday. “Hopefully it’s going to be, like, not that stressful like last year, better. But it’s always tough. So I expect everything.”
Halep insists that chasing year-end No. 1 is not why she is playing Moscow.
“I want to change something before Singapore because the last two, three years I lost in the groups, so some matches, in my head now, I have that that’s going to help me,” explained the Romanian after her loss to Cibulkova on Tuesday.
“So if I’m okay with the back and everything, I’ll go to play.
“No. 1 if it’s going happen, it’s going to happen, I’m not doing it for that.”
Halep spent two days in bed getting treatment after her back was hurt during a practice session with Petra Kvitova on Sunday in Wuhan. She said she still wanted to play her opening match against Cibulkova and despite her 6-0, 7-5 loss, walks away with confidence from the tournament. She says there was no risk to further damage the back and that it should be fine “in a few days”.
“I just didn’t want to give up. I forced a little bit, because I think this match, even if I lost it, it’s important because I played some points and one big tournament is coming ahead, so I see only positives. So it’s okay,” added Halep, who is the top seed in next week’s China Open in Beijing.
Last year, the No. 1 ranking switched hands seven times throughout the year but this season has been a different story. Halep has occupied the top spot for the majority of 2018, with the exception of just four weeks where Caroline Wozniacki replaced her (from January 29 to February 25).
Halep’s peers are not surprised she’s been able to stay on top all year.
“I think she’s the most consist of all players right now,” former world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova said of Halep.
“She’s not just having good results on big tournaments. She won one Grand Slam this year. Even though the last few years she didn’t win Slams, she went to finals, semis. Not only on one tournament, she’s able to make it on nine tournaments out of 10. This is why she’s there now.
“She’s not making any bad tournaments. She’s not giving a match to anybody. That’s why she’s there. That’s why she’s winning a lot of close matches, lot of tough matches, because she’s just fighting. Her game is sometimes too solid and too good for the rest of the players. She has maybe some weeks amazing, but then they don’t have the solid weeks what she’s having.”
World No. 13 Daria Kasatkina echoed Pliskova’s thoughts, conceding that Halep’s consistency is like none other on tour.
“I’m not surprised at all because she’s very, very solid and she’s such a consistent player. I mean how many times did she lose in a first round? Barely any. Now she’s very confident in her game, she won her first Grand Slam and I think she’s very confident,” said the young Russian.
Halep is 46-10 win-loss this season, with three titles to her name in 2018. She has 1,150 points to defend until the end of the year, having reached the final in Beijing last year and she won one of her group stage matches in Singapore at the WTA Finals.
She hasn’t made it out of the group stage at the season finale since her WTA Finals debut in 2014, where she was runner-up to Serena Williams.
Of all the tournaments I attend throughout the year, Wuhan is probably one of the most unique.
From the tournament’s catchy anthem, to the dancing robots and dragons that celebrated its fifth anniversary, to the beautiful venue that keeps developing at an unbelievable pace.
I hadn’t visited this tournament since 2016 and within those two years, the city built a tram that goes all the way up to the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre — which was initially in a relatively remote location but is now accessible via public transport — and a massive outlet mall was opened right in front of the venue. A few players have already been spotted at the shops during their down time.
Wuhan’s slogan is “Different everyday!” and the tournament clearly takes that principle very seriously.
We’ve been having fun with the players these past few days at this Premier 5-level event.
Before her third round loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Petra Kvitova brought her A-game to the press conference room, joking with a veteran tour reporter that she was “new” for forgetting to use the microphone then doing it again when the moderator’s walkie went off loudly during proceedings. “He’s new too,” Kvitova said before finishing off her answer to a journalist’s question. The Czech is certainly keeping us all on our toes!
Meanwhile, Daria Kasatkina, only 21 years of age, admits it was “weird” being the more experienced player on the court when she took on 17-year-old Wang Xiyu in the second round and had to save four match points en route to victory. After jokingly mouthing an expletive, Kasatkina said: “I didn’t expect that, so soon. It’s very weird.” They grow up so fast, don’t they?
The affable Russian later said why she’s specifically motivated for her third round against Dominika Cibulkova on Wednesday.
“I’m happy that I’m playing Centre Court again because here the Centre Court is so beautiful and my team are so happy because the chairs are so comfortable, they can really enjoy it. Philippe [Dehaes, my coach] said he almost fell asleep two days ago during the first match. I hope it will not happen again,” she said with a chuckle.